Essays and Theories

Road Rage and Chat Rooms: behaviors from the comfort zones.
William  A.  Spriggs

The following theory is speculative, and must endure the test of time and debate.

America's booming economy in the 1990s has seen a corresponding increase in the amount of traffic on our nation's highways. Sprawling suburban areas that surround cities are now so congested that the subject has become a political hot potato(e) along with urban sprawl and growth control. Coinciding with this growth in traffic congestion there has been a corresponding increase in the highly publicized behavior called Road Rage. For anyone who has driven on our highways and has experienced the congestion and then had the misfortune to have been cut off or followed too closely from behind knows too well the frustration that can easily occur if we are under time restraints. Statistics compiled by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety state that road rage has increased some 60 percent from 1991 to 1996, resulting in 218 deaths. If you are a student of evolutionary psychology and you know the evidence supporting the origins of male violence, it is easy to understand why in 96 percent of the cases, road rage involved the male of our species. [Sirpress, Alan, "In Alabama, Road Rage Takes a Deadly Turn." The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, November 22, 1999 p.31] Add to this bit of evidence we must remember the empirical evidence regarding actuary tables of accidents involving young males between the ages of 16 to 25. I hazard to guess that the risk-taking exhibited by young males evolves from the deep history (as E.O.Wilson calls our primal past) from the physical competition required to gain sexual access to females. Add to this competition, you must then add the required social commitments of males bonding for the hunt.

Despite its descriptive moniker concerning aggressive bad behavior, road rage, by its very identifiable existence is also the perfect example of how Homo sapiens can overcome their genetic predispositions and live within the rules of behavior established by the cultural norms of our local environments. How can an example of rage, which is without a doubt, violent primal behavior, also suggests that deep within our core behavioral modules we are gentle creatures and behave in a civilized manner? Well, first we look at the statistics. 218 lives lost to road rage: while any loss of life is regrettable, it is a pinprick compared to the 26,000 automobiles deaths on America's highways that has been the average for the last several years. And within those 26,000 deaths, one must calculate the amount of people moving on our nation's highways on a daily basis; multiply this times the average miles driven each day by all involved; then multiply that number by the days in a year and finally, you divide this figure into the road rage deaths to arrive at a percentage of road rage per total yearly miles driven. This miniscule number does not wave red flags in our faces; in fact, it indicate to us how safely most of us do drive without going postal behind the wheel.

If statistics indicate that road rage is indeed a rarity, how come we notice the acts of disrespect given to us by other drivers? Why is the subject showing up in the media more frequently? Is there an answer to this statistical and perceived dichotomy? I hazard to guess that we may be more aware or pay more attention to our position in our social hierarchy than previously thought. For what is road rage? It is the cat-and-mouse game of tailgating, lane-changing, cutting off, screeching brakes, hand gestures, loud, abusive language as a method of exchanging communicative meaning; all occurring while changing positions. The goal? To get ahead of, or prevent someone from passing our current position. The rage, or the emergence of heated emotions comes from the perceived notion that "someone is getting more of their share" of the road and the mental reaction that, "something should be done about it"; and that comes from the possible mental module of resource comparison. If we tie this mental comparison with the "expense" of the vehicle as some individuals do, we support the assumption that road rage is related to hierarchical positioning. One individual driving an expensive, sleek model may believe that because of this "obvious" extension of their alpha position and status, others must make way for their presence. But I believe that the worst offenders would be those individuals that have more to gain by being more aggressive than the alpha individuals. Individual's of lower "status" driving in beat up, junky automobiles have more to gain than those in this particular circumstance. Also, some studies have found that women, under the stress of multiple scheduling, are also high on the list of road rage offenders. This would also fit hierarchy positioning theories as women in many local environments are considered the "second sex"; lending to the agony of being a lower status person, and hence, giving the individual more reason to be aggressive.

But, wait a minute; two individuals inside automobiles that weigh a thousand pounds or more, and "jousting" to overcome the other by maneuvering these metal beasts is no where near our ancient environment. Correct. But it is the perfect example of our ancestral brain attempting to adapt to the modern environment that it finds itself. We can understand the genetic predisposition of competition and the expressive, physical display of the automobile as signs of our hierarchical position, but is there anything else at play? Yes, I believe so. (Since I have had no formal education in cognitive psychology, what I am about to explain may have a formal name attached to the behavior, but I am not aware of it). In my own observations of my automobile interior and driving habits, I have found that my brain absorbs, then ignores the immediate interior merely by the repeated presence of that interior.

In other words, after my brain has "learned" the exact location of all the dials and gizmos, it stores that information and tends to "ignore" their presence until needed. I hazard to guess that once our brain’s are sure that the items before it are not "hostile," it can then extend one's mental reach and pay attention to events beyond the two to four feet of the car's interior. This "comfort zone" in which the brain finds itself then allows for the dropping of defensive or offensive maneuvers, which include defensive and offensive verbal and body expressions, that communicate your meaning and intentions to the outside world -- including any potential enemies.

This now sets the stage for us to understand the application of "rage" devoted to those involved in the act who find themselves yelling and screaming at the top of the lung capacity within their automobiles. Don't we realize that no one can hear us? Not really. The reason is because we are not really in the automobile. HUH? Well, your body is there, but your brain, being in a "save zone," and devoted to perhaps other thoughts, perhaps thinks that it is sitting under a tree in its ancestral past and suddenly another person comes quickly into your presence which may threaten your safety. The yelling and screaming at the top of your lungs then fits nicely into the predicted pattern. Just watch some Jane Goodal videos on chimp behavior.

Now, if you commute day in and day out every time on the same route, does your brain do the same "absorption" of the route markers? – street signs, lampposts, buildings, and, yikes – the timing of traffic lights? Have you ever driven to work or school, and after arriving, had a flash of introspection and realize that you don’t remember the commute? This is your modern ancestral brain working on several levels at the same time. It is this unique ability that separates present day humans from our primate cousins.

For those of you who have never driven an automobile, nor driven a commuting route on a daily basis, this explanation may not make any sense to you, but when I explain the "comfort" some individuals feel about "letting go" within chat rooms, where I feel you have had experience, this phenomenon will fall into place and you will understand the connection to your ancestral past.

In My Room
"There's a place where I can go and tell my secrets to."

So goes the opening line of The Beach Boys 1960s song that found its way into the popular culture. I had such a place when I was young. Since my family was poor, we lived in a area of our town that we could afford. Unfortunately, this area was zoned "light business"; (small offices that employed under 50 or so employees) and as such was not populated by other homes. This in turn, created a local environment that lacked neighborhood children with whom I could socialize. As such, attempting to define myself in my pre-adolescent years and being a young boy who was given little encouragement to seek out others, I found great solace in those pre-internet years by spending most of my time in my comfort zone studying the subjects which gave me the most enjoyment.

Of course, not all of us live in just one room. One can live alone in an entire house and feel just as comfortable. But in any case, it is here, in this solitary place that we, as humans, find escape from the social requirements of our local environments. We can be "ourselves." And what exactly does that mean? It means that we humans can look out a window and write poems about snow falling gently on the distant hill; dwell on the beauty of an impressionistic painting of a starry night, or we could imagine what it would be like riding a beam of light and attempt to understand its relationship to mass and energy. And now, because of the peace dividend of not blowing ourselves up in a nuclear war, we now can connect, with another person on the other side of the planet in places called chat rooms on the internet.

Sitting at your computer and chatting with someone else is very similar to sitting in your automobile. By that I mean that you are so familiar and "comfortable" about being in this particular spot, that you let down your defensive shield and become the person that you want to project to the person on the other side.

Now, you may be trying to upset this other person – perhaps you are a creationist connected to a evolutionists – you could attempt to make this other person upset. But, In most cases, I feel that the reason that most people chat with others on the internet is to get to know the other person. And this is done when your brain is within the comfort zoom of the room in which the computer sits. You know all the markers of the room by your repeated presence of being in the room – TV, dressers, book racks, bed covers, etc, and your brain has gone through the absorption process that I mention above for your car’s interior.

It is in this comfort zone that we acknowledge and accept that releases us from the continual frustrations of daily living. Getting food, having a roof over one’s head, and know that we are reasonably save for the night as we close our minds to the potential dangers that lurk around our campsite. Here for a few minutes or few hours one can transform their personas and be whomever they desire.

It is the reason that we humans have so much potential – be it for good, or for evil.

The above theories are speculative, and must endure the test of time and debate.

Origin: August 28, 2000

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